May 12, 2022

Bharatanatyam in Ballet Shoes

Written by Mahak Jain
Illustrated by Anu Chouhan
Annick Press
36 pp.
Ages 4-7
March 2022

Palo loves doing Bharatanatyam, a classic Indian dance tradition, having learned from her mother whom she envisions as a queen of the dance. But when she heads to ballet class for the first time, she worries that she won't be able to dance and that her feet will fail her.
From Bharatanatyam in Ballet Shoes by Mahak Jain, illus. by Anu Chouhan
Though her toes seem eager to dance, Palo's apprehension grows as she meets young dancers Marco and Dana. They come from different backgrounds–Marco learned ballet as a baby and Dana learned to break dance from videos–and they are initially perplexed by Palo's unusual walk-dance. And when her Bharatanatyam moves get in the way of her ballet learning, Palo is not sure she'll be able to manage. Still Palo tells them about the Indian dance and about one of its most famous dancers, Rukmini Devi.

From Bharatanatyam in Ballet Shoes by Mahak Jain, illus. by Anu Chouhan

It's only when Palo can see, along with her new dance friends, that the glory is in the dance, whether Bharatanatyam or ballet or a blend of both, that she can accept that she really is a dancer.

While Bharatanatyam in Ballet Shoes will provide young readers with the inspiration to be themselves even if they worry that their differences will set them apart, I think that the picture book is more about the splendour of cultural diversity and inclusiveness of different art forms as both authentic and dynamic. How wonderful that a break dancer or a ballet dancer and a Bharatanatyam dancer can come together and learn, and even create something different. By doing so, Toronto's Mahak Jain, whose debut picture book Maya (Owlkids Books, 2016) gleaned her much positive attention, again brings her Indian culture to the forefront and introduces a classic dance tradition with its unique moves and costume (love the cross fan skirt). Moreover, she shows us that differences don't diminish who we are but rather enhance and that self-acceptance can mitigate any fears or worries about fitting in.

Anu Chouhan is a Punjabi-Canadian artist and game art director from BC whose artwork balances the boldness and brightness of Bharatanatyam with the soft and muted ballet. Whether it's the delicacy or the exotic, Anu Chouhan's artwork plays up that which defines them and unites them.
From Bharatanatyam in Ballet Shoes by Mahak Jain, illus. by Anu Chouhan
Palo may worry that Bharatanatyam and ballet are far too different to allow her to become a true dancer but Mahak Jain's afterword reveals a historical connection between two of the most famous dancers of each: Rukmini Devi and Anna Pavlova. If these two dancers could find a commonality that allowed them to blend elements of their dance with that of the other, then there's enough room for Bharatanatyam, and break dancing and ballroom and hip hop and more, to share any dance stage and studio around the world and bring dancing joy to those who move and those who watch.

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